Formatting Text Messages in Fiction

Text message conversation screenshot

In our Fiction+ series, we set out to help CMOS users adapt Chicago style to creative writing contexts. Sometimes, Chicago’s general guidelines already work just fine; other times, they need a little noodge to sit comfortably on a page of fiction. And often, as is the case in this post, they are just one option among many that may suit the material.

So my aim today isn’t to decide the best way to format text messages in fiction, but to show how different stylings suit different kinds of work and to point out problems that might arise.

The Chicago Way

CMOS makes no special recommendation for formatting text messages in formal writing, more or less taking for granted that they will be treated the same as other quotations, either within quotation marks in line with the main text or set off as a block. This is standard practice for academic books and articles, reports, and other kinds of no-nonsense nonfiction:

In one notorious scam, the manager texted the horses’ names the day before the race in order of win, place, and show: “green fancy, dollop, stand by me.”

The same treatment can be used in a novel, but because quotation marks are strongly associated with spoken words, text messages in fiction are often styled in italics or bold or a different font, whether run-in or set off as a block:

When her phone finally chirped, the text was short: Joe’s at 10?

Conversation Complications

Back-and-forth messages between two or more texters present more of a challenge. Short and infrequent exchanges, or those where the delivery medium is incidental, may simply be integrated into the narrative with action beats:

I texted Why that one? and Greta’s reply was instant: It was her fave. It figures. Mom was weird that way.

Conversations set off as a block can mimic the display of mobile apps by using staggered indent levels that position outgoing texts farther to the right than incoming texts:

Why that one? I thought blue
was out of the running.

Yeah, but this was her
favorite.

However, without special treatment, and especially with group texts, readers can lose track of who’s texting, and (self-pubbers, listen up) if the staggered formatting is lost during publication, it will leave a mess. Writing out the speakers’ names can clarify who says what, but it’s clunky, like a transcript:

(Me) Why that one? I thought blue was out of the running.
(Greta) Yeah, but this was her favorite.
(Maggie) Go ahead. I’ll pay.

Better solutions are called for. And they exist!

Once More, with Feeling

For many writers and readers, text messages formatted plainly in the line of narrative fail to convey the feeling of a text. After all, unlike emails, letters, and voice messages, texts are sudden, tiny “events.” They have their own kind of immediacy and intimacy, popping up in a string of colorful bubbles and accompanied by someone’s face or initials and urgent little dings or whistles. Ordinary formatting can give them a flatness, a lack of urgency.

What’s more, a text-only block of a group-texted conversation can’t approach the clarity provided by the familiar syntax of a narrow column of messages staggered left and right that distinguishes each texter by color or name or headshot.

The special qualities of text messages have obviously occurred to makers of films or TV series who choose to render messages on the screen instead of showing viewers a shot of the character’s phone.

Display choices range from the literal,

Detail of still from Crazy Rich Asians

to the personal and quirky,

Detail of still from The Fault in Our Stars

to the cool and elegant.

Detail of still from Sherlock Holmes

Graphics as Narrative, Not Illustration

Why shouldn’t the makers of books have the same choices when they display a text? Over the last decades, “hybrid” or “multimodal” novels that feature graphic elements along with conventional pages of text have conditioned readers of all ages to accept and even expect a narrative to consist of more than straight lines of text.

By now we’re used to reading all kinds of materials through a graphical interface (in social media, blogs, and messaging apps). No one is surprised to encounter drawings, handwriting fonts, sticky notes, photos, or collages integrated into their reading—not as illustrations, but as integral, chronological parts of the narrative. Unlike illustrations, these graphics require precise positioning in relation to the rest of the text.

Text messages within a story are similarly part of its narrative, and like any other visual element, they benefit from formatting that conveys their distinctive appearance or syntax. In printed books and e-books and online fiction, text messages can be formatted with various techniques using color and shading or special graphics. Whole novels—for example, the latest young adult books by Lauren Myracle and the TBH series by Lisa Greenwald—have been formed primarily of texts and emails, featuring page after page of messages.

Lisa Greenwald, TBH, This Is So Awkward

Potential Pitfalls

These extremes aside, anyone wishing to integrate text messages into a fiction narrative in a visually striking and coherent way must weigh the benefits against the drawbacks. For instance, the use of color in printed books can be prohibitively expensive. And almost any kind of realistic or distinctive visual display will date your work, which may be ideal for historical fiction, but not for a story you mean to stay contemporary as long as possible.

Best Practices

When displaying text messages in works of fiction, there are a few givens. If images are taken from actual mobile devices, these details will take care of themselves. (Apps for creating fictional mobile text conversations are useful for this purpose.) But if other kinds of media are used to generate the appearance of text messages, creators must pay attention to the conventions for message display. As of this writing, texts invariably feature

  • Left justification (ragged-right edge) for individual texts
  • Staggered left and right bubbles to indicate incoming and outgoing messages, respectively
  • App-dependent fonts, colors, date and time stamps, usernames or headshots or avatars, etc., consistently rendered

Questions to ask when deciding how to display text messages:

  • Are there many texts and is space an issue?
  • Are there only single texts, or are there also conversations?
  • How many people text at once, and is identifying each texter important?
  • On the continuum from no-frills quoting to full-color decorated balloons, what are the likely preferences or expectations of your primary audience?
  • If color is ideal but too expensive, can shading work as a substitute?
  • Do you require historical accuracy or a longer shelf life for the depicted technology?
  • If your work goes into audio, how will the reader handle the texts?

If you need help, a professional book designer can provide solutions to suit your genre, audience, and publishing budget. A graphic designer will also know how to make the renderings more or less future-proof.

Images

Detail of still from Crazy Rich Asians (directed by Jon M. Chu), in “How Rumors Spread in ‘Crazy Rich Asians’: Anatomy of a Scene,” New York Times, August 17, 2018, YouTube.

Detail of still from The Fault in Our Stars (directed by Josh Boone), in “Everything Wrong with The Fault in Our Stars,” CinemaSins, October 7, 2014, YouTube.

Detail of still from Sherlock, season 1, episode 1, “A Study in Pink,” directed by Paul McGuigan, series created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, aired October 24, 2010 (US), 0:12:28, Netflix.

Cover of Lisa Greenwald’s TBH, This Is So Awkward: A Novel in Text, TBH no. 1 (New York: Katherine Tegen Books, 2018).


Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

Carol Saller

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Carol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at www.carolsaller.com.

NEW! The Subversive Copy Editor is now an audiobook, available from Amazon Kindle, Apple iBooks, and other e-book retailers.

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5 thoughts on “Formatting Text Messages in Fiction

  1. Thank you for this post! I noticed no comma appears after “texted” in this sentence:
    I texted Why that one? and Greta’s reply was instant: It was her fave.
    Is this because you’re recommending that a comma never follow the tag “texted”? Or was the comma not used because it’s midsentence “dialogue” (for lack of a better word)? Or something else? Thank you!

    • Thanks for asking, callahanedits! You could put a comma there, but I wasn’t thinking of “texted” as a dialogue tag. Look at CMOS 13.15 (“No Comma to Introduce a Quotation”). I think “texted” serves a function similar to that of “scrawled” in the example there:

      One of the protesters scrawled “Long live opera!” in huge red letters.

      Does that make sense?

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